Conflict Minerals, Rebels and Child Soldiers in Congo

Uploaded by vice on May 22, 2012


SUROOSH ALVI: It's late.
We're deep in the heart of it now.
I don't know how much water we have.
We haven't eaten in a really long time.
And my glasses are fogging up because it's so hot.
And I can't see.
And I'm walking in the mud.
I don't know, man.
I think this might be the stupidest
thing I've ever done.

The Democratic Republic of Congo.
It's one of the poorest countries in the world, and
thanks to insanely complicated mix of politics, armed
conflict, and corruption, it's also one of the most
It also happens to be home to a nondescript black rock known
as coltan, a vital ingredient in the production of nearly
every cell phone and computer on the planet.
Without coltan, our technology-driven lives would
come to a screeching halt.
And Congo has 80% of the world's supply.

Congo also has cassiterite, gold, and a slew of other
minerals that make the world go round.

Now, you'd think that having so much of the stuff would be
good for Congo, but the reality is far from the case.
There's a reason they're called conflict minerals.
SUROOSH ALVI: Since the mid 1990s, armed groups have used
these minerals to fund a series of fantastically
complicated and horrifically violent wars.
MALE SPEAKER: We have to kill them.
We have to kill them.
SUROOSH ALVI: And as the tech boom drove up the price of
these minerals, violence skyrocketed.

Slaves to technology that we are, we had see for ourselves
where these minerals were coming from and what these
rebels were fighting for.
SUROOSH ALVI: So together with my cameraman Jake and producer
Jason, we hopped on a plane and flew to Congo.

Our first stop was Kinshasa.

To say that Congo's natural resources have been more of a
curse than a blessing would be an understatement.
Conrad described this place as "the vilest scramble for loot
that has ever disfigured the human conscience." That was
written in the 1800s, right around the time that Belgian
colonists were stripping the country of its rich supply of
ivory and rubber, killing nearly half the population in
the process.
In the 1960s, it was the United States that was after
Congo's cobalt for its Cold War fighter jets, leading to
its support for a dictator who renamed the country Zaire and
embezzled billions of dollars.

SUROOSH ALVI: Today, it's the global demand for technology
that is inadvertently fueling the conflict in Congo.
The statistics we read are staggering.
Five million people have died in the Congo because of this
conflict since the mid '90s until about 2007.
It's a huge number.
The most since any war since World War II.
The government in Kinshasa says that the war is over, but
Kinshasa is a long way from the jungles of eastern Congo,
where most of the rebel groups and the minerals that finance
them are located.
So we needed to go east to find out what was
really going on.

One thing that had been drilled into our heads before
we came to Congo was that you do not fly
on Congolese airlines.
This is a country whose aircraft are banned from
European airspace.
Last year, a crash that killed 20 people was the result of a
crocodile escaping from a passenger's carry on luggage.
But with Goma being over 1,000 miles away, we didn't have
much of a choice.

And as it turned out, that flight would be the most
comfortable experience of the days to come.

One thing we've noticed since we came here is that there are
fires burning everywhere in Congo.
I guess they're just burning their garbage.
But it kind of feels apocalyptic at times.
Watch out.

We're in Goma.
It's in eastern Congo, right on the Rwandan border.
This has been the epicenter of the conflict since 1994.
It's also the center for humanitarian aid.
There are 51 different international organizations
based here.
As you can see, there's UN guys everywhere around us.
It's kind of chaotic.
We're also pretty close to the mines where coltan is
extracted from, and we're going to go check that out.
When we got to Goma, we met up with Tim Freccia, a veteran
crisis and conflict photographer who has worked in
Congo for years.
He told us that we were under-dressed for our trip to
the cold mountain mining town of Numbi, so we went shopping.
I've got a nice polo here.
I got a Minnesota Golden Gophers hoodie.
Jake got a great Carhartt.
But I think this might be a strong look when I'm going to
interview the militia.
Some Wu wear.
The only problem is it's fucking disgusting.
Is it pretty good?
SUROOSH ALVI: Yeah, you like it?
MALE SPEAKER: I like it.
SUROOSH ALVI: He likes it.
We got our outfits.

So we're going to visit the mines today, the Numbi mines.
It's where they extract coltan from.
HOREB BUJAMBO: And cassiterite and tourmaline, and some other
precious stones.
SUROOSH ALVI: This is Horeb.
He's our new buddy.
He's our new best friend.
He knows everyone.
He's a bit of a celebrity in these parts.
SUROOSH ALVI: He's got a TV show.
What's your show called?
HOREB BUJAMBO: Monusco Realites.
It's a kind of Congo reality.
SUROOSH ALVI: Is it safe to say that you're a Congolese
reality TV star?
HOREB BUJAMBO: I'm a celebrity for many Congolese, just
because I tell them the stories which they--
SUROOSH ALVI: They don't know.
HOREB BUJAMBO: They don't know.
I tell stories about Congo.

SUROOSH ALVI: I've driven a lot of treacherous roads
before, but this one seems to be the worst.
HOREB BUJAMBO: We are still going up.
Up and up.
SUROOSH ALVI: Oh my god, I can't even look right now.
This is completely fucked.
I saw vehicles, they went down.
SUROOSH ALVI: Fall down the hill?
HOREB BUJAMBO: It's not a safe road, yeah.
SUROOSH ALVI: We figured that out.
HOREB BUJAMBO: Despite the beauty of this place.
SUROOSH ALVI: Yeah, it's beautiful.

SUROOSH ALVI: What if we all just push him out?
Straight out?
Nothing's working this way.
He's not getting anywhere.

SUROOSH ALVI: Where did all these people appear from?
Like, we're in the middle of nowhere.

I thought you were kidding when you said
hiring local labor.
They just conveniently had a shovel, as well.

SUROOSH ALVI: Like, as soon as we sank into the mud hole, the
kids were all like, thumbs up, we got him.
Now they're all here, and they're going to work until
they get us out, and they're gonna get paid.

We finally got out.
But before long, we got stuck again.
And again.
And again.
Until one thing became very clear.
We were not making it back to Goma anytime soon.
It looks like we're probably going to end up sleeping at
the mines tonight, which is a bit odd.
I can't believe connecting two land cruisers
with seatbelts worked.
They're saying we have to hurry because it's going to
rain again soon, and if we don't get past this patch of
red earth, we're going to be stuck sleeping here.

When we finally got to Numbi, we had to smooth talk the
local officials into showing us the mines.
So these are all the powerful dudes of the town.
Yet another negotiation.
Bonjour, Suroosh.
SUROOSH ALVI: Nice to meet you.
This way.
In what would become a running theme for the rest of our
trip, the locals said the mines were just over there
around the bend.
And then we would get over there and around the bend,
they were just over there, and over the hill.
Like a quick two kilometers.
Holy fuck.

I'm about to pass out, Jake.
Hey Jake, how many people are working?
JAKE BURGHART: They've all gone home.
We have to come back tomorrow.
SUROOSH ALVI: The mine had no miners.
It was completely empty.
The locals told us that this mine in particular is owned by
a member of Congo Senate who lives in Kinshasa, and that
his miners pull 15 kilos of coltan out of it every day.
At $30 a kilo, that's about $13,000 a month, a lot of
money in a country where most of the people survive on less
than $1 a day.
And while the senator gets the big rocks, the bottom feeders
get by on what washes down the stream.

So we got totally set up.
Basically when we pulled into town.
MALE SPEAKER: Lower, lower, lower your voice.
SUROOSH ALVI: Basically we got totally set up.
When we pulled into town, alarm bells went off.
And they said yeah, we'll show you a mine, and they took us
on a trek far, far away from town to a mine where they sent
in advance someone ahead of us to clear everyone out because
there were kids working in the mine.
Then we got there, and they're like, oh, yeah, everybody's
just gone home for the day.
They actually fessed up to that to Horeb, to our guy, so,
I'm still pissed off.

It's gonna be an interesting night.

Probably about 5:30 in the morning here in the Numbi
mining town.
This is a town with no electricity,
with no running water.
We basically got stranded out here, which wasn't really part
of the plan.
They didn't take too kindly to us initially, but they were
even worried about our safety, because we're in South Kivu,
and they're not used to this kind of thing.
A bunch of foreigners spending a night here.
They gave us this little house to stay in.
Then they offered us a couple soldiers to guard
us all night long.
You know, yesterday we experienced them trying to
keep some secrets hidden.
So today we have a plan.
We're going to break free.
We're going to go a couple kilometers, and we're going to
set up and wait for the miners to show up so we can really
see how these mines operate.

This is the main street of the Numbi mining town.
It's very muddy today, after raining all night.
It reeks of urine.
Here's my breakfast, along with two Advils and some kind
of mega antibiotic cure all.
When anything goes wrong in Africa, you take that pill.
Plugs up your ass, reduces fever.
Well, so much for getting a head start on everyone.

Oh, shit.
Jason, Jason, come here.

I think it's like, quicksand.

I just kept going down.
This is not going to be fun.

This is the main Numbi mine.
Just got there.
These houses are all miners who work right here.

It took two days of trekking and looking.
We're finally here in the heart of the mine.

This is where all kinds of minerals are coming out of,
everything from tantalum to coltan.
MALE SPEAKER: This is what you call tourmaline.
I can show you one that is the biggest one.
They say that this is the most expensive.
This is where they get it.
You can see that this man is fortunate, because he got this
block of stone, which has everything.
SUROOSH ALVI: A lot inside.
MALE SPEAKER: Yeah, it has a lot inside.
SUROOSH ALVI: It seems so primitive, with their bare
hands, and with shovels.
They're pulling it out, and a lot of it ends up in super
high tech devices.
And you never think when you're using those devices
back home, that this is how it actually starts.
And that without this process, it wouldn't exist, or it
wouldn't work.
The mine that we finally saw was so different from the
horror stories that we had heard.
We were expecting to see forced child labor, inhumane
conditions, and rebels everywhere.

Maybe things were changing in eastern Congo, or at least
that's how this mine made it seem.
In recent years, activist organizations in the US and
Europe have been pressuring electronics companies into
taking greater responsibility for keeping rebels out of
their supply chain.
And in 2010, the US Congress passed legislation forcing
companies to declare their use of conflict minerals.

SUROOSH ALVI: And who gets the credit for this change?
Is it the government in Kinshasha?

SUROOSH ALVI: Why did the government want
to make these changes?
Was it because of the pressure of western corporations and

SUROOSH ALVI: Things seemed so peaceful that it was hard to
imagine that there was ever a war here.
Everything that we've been walking on, during the like,
second Congolese war, this was like a battlefield.
The mine was an almost picture perfect symbol of progress,
but I couldn't help but wonder how long it would be before a
bunch of guys showed up with guns and screwed it all up.
TIM FRECCIA: That's the whole point with conflict minerals
is it's in every businessman's interest to
keep conflict going.
Then there's no control, there's no government.
There's nobody watching whether or not
children are working.

SUROOSH ALVI: Our last stop in Numbi was the
coltan storage facility.
And not surprisingly, it was the nicest building in town.

SUROOSH ALVI: Let me see?

This is coltan.
This is what it's all about.
80% of the world's supply comes from here in Congo.
Thank you, Congo, for providing this for us.
SUROOSH ALVI: And that's cassarite.
Is it pure, solid cassarite?
SUROOSH ALVI: And this is basically what tin, tin ore
comes from.
MALE SPEAKER: Yeah, it's heavy.
SUROOSH ALVI: It's heavy.
We struggled for two days to find the mines, and eventually
we got there.
We are going back to Goma on motorcycles because roads are
so bad now, and so dangerous that they're saying that a
Land Cruiser almost fell off a cliff last night.

We'd seen one of the mines where coltan comes from.
We're happy that the conditions there seem to be
improving, but with so many armed groups operating in
eastern Congo, that could change in an instant.
But where did all these rebels come from in the first place?

Most people know about the Rwandan genocide.
Hutus killing Tutsis.
But few understand how it led to a war in neighboring Congo.
Here's the short version.
Millions of Rwandan refugees streaming across the border.
Among them, many of the Hutu soldiers
involved in the genocide.
Soldiers that the new Tutsi leadership in
Rwanda wanted dead.
Before long, eastern Congo became home to a litany of
armed militias supported by foreign countries.

We're on our way to meet the Mai Mai.
They are a witch doctor militia and self-proclaimed
protectors of Congolese soil.
They are the most feared militia in the country.
It is believed they have special powers.
They can fly, they can disappear.
And bullets pass through them like water.
And we're going to go camping with them.
Most of the groups who have been using minerals to fuel
their military operations have been from the countries
surrounding Congo.
The Mai Mai are a sort of patriotic response to this
influx of foreigners, and they are the all too often
overlooked link in the vicious circle that is conflict in
eastern Congo.
As long as they're convinced that Congo is being corrupted
by outsiders, they will keep fighting.


SUROOSH ALVI: So we left Goma three hours ago, and on our
drive here, again, beautiful.
Eastern Congo is stunning.
But as we approached Masisi territory in this town that
we're in now, things were getting worse.

More humanitarian aid vehicles everywhere.

Everybody here needs help.
The locals, they're dirt poor, and they're hungry.

Horeb is going to talk to people to sort shit out.
Make sure we don't get into any trouble as we proceed.
The Mai Mai agreed to let us into their world, which we're
really excited to see.
Chuck Norris.
JAKE BURGHART: This is the second time people have
thought I was Chuck Norris.
JAKE BURGHART: I didn't even have a headband on.

SUROOSH ALVI: So what's happening?
We're waiting for the motorcycles?
HOREB BUJAMBO: We are still bargaining about the price for
the motorcycles.
Going to that area is not easy.
It's something like going to a war zone.
People here are saying that the last time when they went
there, they were beaten by Mai Mai when they
took some people there.
Then they're asking us to guarantee that when they spend
the night there, if we shall assure that nobody will beat
them, and nobody will traumatize them.
SUROOSH ALVI: The further we got from Masisi, the reality
of the situation we were heading into began to sink in.
The various rebel groups that still occupy much of the bush
are packs of battle-hardened, murderous thugs, whose names
have become synonymous with the word rape.

SUROOSH ALVI: And the most notorious rebel group
operating in Congo today is the FDLR, a Hutu power group
tied to the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide.

SUROOSH ALVI: So this is where the road ends.
Now we wait for some motorcycles.
We sat around waiting at a nearby UN post for the
motorcycle guys we hired to arrive.
Yeah, the same guys that were harassing us when
we arrived in Masisi.

We got six kilometers from the point where the road ends for
the car, and we're waiting for the motorcycles.
Our motorcycles aren't coming, or they're not here yet.
And this is the UN base in the area.
We had to register with them, which kind of
makes me a bit nervous.
They say it's just a formality in case something happens.
The Congolese government doesn't really have any
jurisdiction where we're going.
So you turn the phone on for 15 minutes.
UN OFFICER: Only 15.
UN OFFICER: That is only for you.
SUROOSH ALVI: In the evening, and in the morning.
6:00 and 6:00.
SUROOSH ALVI: Only once.
UN OFFICER: Only 15 minutes.
SUROOSH ALVI: In 24 hours.
I understand.
Thank you.
UN OFFICER: We are not using this line.
We have radio sets.
We are specially open for you.
UN OFFICER: For 15 minutes.
If you have some mess, you can talk.
Thank you.
And then we were standing there, and I just thought, we
should just ask them if we can sleep here, because I don't
like the idea of if our motorcycle guys show up, we go
six kilometers with them, and then it's going to get dark,
it's going to rain, and we're gong to be wandering through
the Congolese jungle in the dark, trying to
find the Mai Mai.
Sounds a bit sketchy to me.
Just as I was getting comfortable, the motorcycles
guys arrived, and we were off, racing to get to the Mai Mai
camp before dark.

As we were riding deeper into the jungle, we got stopped by
a bunch of young guys with guns.
We'd been told that the Congolese military, the FARDC,
were a little rough around the edges.
But there was something about these guys
that made us nervous.

SUROOSH ALVI: And that's when Horeb whispered to us that
these guys were the dreaded Rwandan Hutu rebels, the FDLR.
Basically, the last people in the world we
wanted to run into.
HOREB BUJAMBO: I knew that these people we met on the way
were Rwandans and not Mai Mai just because they were
speaking in Kinyarwandan, and this is what the
Mai Mai don't do.


HOREB BUJAMBO: This is what people know about the FDLR.
If you don't cooperate or so, you can pay your life.
SUROOSH ALVI: We'd heard rumors that for some reason,
the Mai Mai and the FDLR were working together, but it
wasn't until the creepy commander of their outpost
gave us four of his armed guards to take us to the Mai
Mai camp that we actually believed it.
So we continued our journey through the jungle at night.

You see anything?
I don't know how far we are from the final destination,
the Mai Mai camp, but it's late.
We're deep in the heart of it now.
I don't know, man.
I think this might be the stupidest
thing I've ever done.

How far are we?

We arrived here 14 hours after we left Vilma this morning.
The last three hours of which was walking through the jungle
in the dark, which is a first for me.
I'm not afraid to say it, I am soft, living in New York City,
sitting at my desk 12 hours a day.
I'm a professional emailer, just [TYPING SOUNDS].
I wanted to stay with the Indian UN guys, because their
place was great.
Because I knew there was no way we were going to get there
in 90 minutes, and I knew we were going to end up walking
through a Congolese jungle at night.
And it sucked, but we're here.

SUROOSH ALVI: We're in the Mai Mai camp right now.
We are way off the grid, deep in the bush.
We're so far out here that the UN jurisdiction ended, and
then the Congolese government troops, the FARDC, their
jurisdiction ended.
We encountered some Rwandan rebels going
through that area.
And after that, it's just bush.
But hopefully we're gonna meet the general now.
We want to interview him and get an understanding of why
they're the most political and feared
militia in this country.
It would be great if we could see the special
powers that they have.
I want to see them turn themselves into animals.
I think that would be pretty cool.
All right.
I need Imodium.
SUROOSH ALVI: The term Mai Mai is shorthand for the wide
assortment of local militias in Eastern Congo.
General Janvier is the leader of a group known as the
Patriotic Alliance for a Free and Sovereign Congo, also
known as the APCLS.
The thing about rebel leaders is that much of their power
lies in their mystique.
They don't want to seem overeager to meet the press.
So we had a wait around until the general could carve some
time out of his busy schedule to meet with us.
MALE SPEAKER: He looks like Chuck Norris.

SUROOSH ALVI: In the meantime, we hung out
with some of his soldiers.

Horeb, how many times has he been shot?

SUROOSH ALVI: Who was he fighting when he was shot?
SUROOSH ALVI: When they say Tutsis, it's shorthand for the
Rwandan government, who they blame for
most of Congo's problems.


SUROOSH ALVI: Does he have a name, the dog?
HOREB BUJAMBO: They say that Bobby has also battled and
contributed to many fighting.
But he looks so nice.
He just winked at me.

SUROOSH ALVI: Just as our friend was ordered to stop
speaking, we received word that the general was finally
ready to see us.
But in order to do so, we had to cross one of the sketchiest
Lord of the Flies- esque bridges imaginable.
Then we were led to an even more remote encampment.
Then, after being surrounded by heavily armed guards, we
met with the general's secretary, who meticulously
transcribed our every word.
The general finally granted us an audience.
We can start?
SUROOSH ALVI: OK, monsieur le general, thank
you for your time.
My first question is, since the time of Belgian
colonization, the natural resources of this country have
been taken from the Congolese people.
As the protectors of Congolese soil, what is your view on the
mining that's taken place in the country and the way
foreign corporations and governments are
involved with that?


SUROOSH ALVI: It seemed like Janvier's beef was not with
foreigners in general, but with the current
government of Rwanda.
So I was starting to understand why they'd team up
with the FDLR.
It seems to me that you have a common enemy with the FDLR,
and I'm wondering, are you friends with them?
And also, do you think that they should leave this
country, along with the rest of the Rwandans?

SUROOSH ALVI: Now I was totally confused.
Were they or weren't they allied with the FDLR?
The UN group of experts report that you and your group have
been working with FDLR, and it's very important for us to
get clarity on this from you, so we
communicate this report correctly.

SUROOSH ALVI: Even though I knew this was total bullshit,
because it was the FDLR who escorted us to the Mai Mai
camp, I didn't want to piss off our new friends, so I
decided to change topics.
Could you explain to me what some of these special powers
are that the Mai Mai have?

SUROOSH ALVI: I am a Muzungu, but I am not white.
And I believe in God.

SUROOSH ALVI: So the general wouldn't show off his magical
powers, but what he did insist on showing us were his
prisoners, two FARDC soldiers they kidnapped two months ago
while patrolling the area.
This was a remarkably weird, unsettling, and Heart of
Darkness moment.
It seems that they're pretty healthy, and haven't been
abused or beaten.
So why are you being nice to them?

SUROOSH ALVI: After the general served up his
propaganda, he fed us a nice, hot meal of
Congolese rice and beans.
It's the first meal we've had in a few days.
We're about to trek through the jungle.
This time in the middle of the afternoon, so I
expect it will be hot.
Took us 14 hours to get here.
Hopefully it won't take that long to get back.

He was a nice guy, the general.

On our trek back, we managed to piss off
the creepy FDLR commander.

SUROOSH ALVI: Got extorted by our motorcycle guys.
What happened?
JASON MOJICA: Well, they're holding out for like, a whole
lot more money.
SUROOSH ALVI: The UN guys are gonna get involved.
And had our lives threatened by a bunch of locals
drunk on 12% beer.
But the strangest part of it all was that by this point,
after just one week in the Congo, all this lunacy seemed
completely normal.

Leaving tomorrow.
The trip has come to an end.
It was good vibes, it was scary at times.
We learned a lot.
We had to work hard to get to the story.
Whether we were going to the mines in Numbi, or whether we
were trying to meet with General Janvier.
It's an incredibly complicated situation in place.
There are no easy answers.
But we--
well, how do I end that?
There are no easy answers.
It's easy to pin the country's problems on the past.
On the legacy of brutality by Belgian colonialists and
kleptocratic rulers, the practices of Western
corporations, or wars with neighboring nations.
But that doesn't make any of them go away.
If we demanded conflict-free electronics, maybe the rebel
groups would simply melt away into the jungle.
Or maybe it would lead to businesses avoiding coltan
from Congo altogether, making one of the poorest countries
in the world even poorer, which is kind of what seems to
be happening.
Congo is one of the most under-reported stories in the
world, and now we understand why.
It's so insanely complicated that's it's hard to
know where to start.
We did, however, see some signs of hope and progress.
But it's a fragile progress in a place where anyone with a
gun and an agenda can basically have
his own little kingdom.
So until the government in Kinshasa takes control of its
territory and ensures that its army is the only one operating
in the jungle, Congo will continue to be a war zone.
And instead of being a blessing, the minerals that
fuel this conflict will continue to be a curse.